Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Temple of Gloom

I mentioned previously that I started packing my up my books and moving slowly towards the exit from theism once I realized how much of theistic belief is predicated on maintaining an aura of fear in believers that keeps them tractable. I probably should clarify that point to avoid future conflict and confusion. I did not become an atheist because of the actions of a single pastor or the beliefs of a solitary rural church. In order to explain the effect properly, though, I guess I'm going to have to don my teacher clothes and take you back to British literature class for a few minutes. 

Don't worry—I wear a Hawaiian shirt when I teach, too.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one of the premier poets of the Romantic era. He and William Wordsworth's book of poetry Lyrical Ballads both kick started and defined the romantic movement in literature for a generation, and his poems "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan" (which beats out the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" for the title of best literary drug trip) are still taught today in high school. My high school, anyways. What is less well known is how that he coined the term "willing suspension of disbelief." A lot of people are familiar with the phrase, but few seem to understand what Coleridge actually meant by it. He was referring to a writer's ability to weave a the imaginary and fantastical in a story in a realistic enough way so as to get the reader to put at least part of his abilities to discern the difference between real and unreal on hold long enough to be entertained by the unfolding narrative. Recent years have seen the popular conception of the term twisted a bit, however. It's been reinterpreted in the past few decades, however. Now most people define it as the audience's willingness to consciously leave common sense and reason at the door and simply accept what is presented as credible. The difference may seem subtle, but the definition is completely altered. The original requires the story to have enough logical ties to the real world to keep the reader believing. The more modern version puts all the responsibility for pulling the story off on the audience.

Yeah, It could happen

The revamped version of the phrase irks me to no end because it's used to shift the responsibility for a crappy story to those it's meant to entertain/inform/enlighten. For example, I remember rolling my eyes at the scene Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom years ago when Indy and the most annoying sidekicks in a movie ever (pre-Jar Jar Binks, at least), survive a parachute-less leap from an airplane by inflating a life raft climbing aboard, falling thousands of feet, hitting a mountain, sliding down the mountain and off a cliff, falling several hundred feet more, hitting a raging river and navigating the rapids therein. When I first rolled my eyes, then laughed out loud at the absurdity, I was chastised by friends for lacking the willingness to "shut off my brain" (their term) and roll with it. My response was that it's not my responsibility to do that. A quality story will accomplish that for me without me even realizing it.

Not only could I not buy that scene, but its absurdity shattered the illusion of the rest of the movie for me. My friends may have enjoyed it, but all I got from the visit to the theater was some overpriced, albeit delicious, popcorn between my teeth.

If you haven't seen the connection I'm forming, our experience at the Baptist Church we visited where everyone was praying to a loving God to help them believe in him before they were killed via nuclear annihilation and condemned to an eternity of torment was my religious leaping-out-of-an-airplane-in-a-rubber-raft moment. They took it too far, and the suspension of disbelief they had lulled me into up until that point was shattered by an absurd and obvious left turn from reality. And once it was broken, all the other illogical and irrational aspects of belief that I had willingly ignored to that point now stood out like they'd been highlighted with a bright yellow marker.

And like that movie, many people who know about my lack of belief now tell me that the fault lies with me. I'm not willing to believe. My heart isn't open to the word of God. If I would simply put a little more effort into it, I could regain my faith.

I wish people would at least be as honest with themselves as my buddies were after The Temple of Doom and say what is really required.

I'm expected to shut off my brain and roll with it.


  1. Well, you clarified that enough for me. I can relate but then again I can't. I did enjoy your little lesson though. It brought me back to the days I sat in your English class and marveled at the seemingly flawless way you had about keeping us as rapt listeners, even when we caused you to "digress." :)

    I also remember that scene you describe from Temple of Doom and I believe I laughed at that part too. I still find myself laughing at scenes like that in movies. When I am in the movie theater, I get strange looks when I suddenly burst into laughter at parts that no one else finds funny. I can unhook the brain sometimes but sometimes it's so over the top that I can't help but laugh at the unbelievable. My sense of humor is a little more quirky and dark at times.

    Anyway, I can agree with the thought process there especially when it comes to that scene. I can also see how the Bible and some of the stories located within can fall into that "obvious left turn from reality" category that you speak of. I can also see how some pastors might accomplish the same feeling from sermons. I can relate to that train of thinking but I guess I can't buy into it.

    We might have a difference of opinion when it comes to this issue but there is one thing that will never change. My respect for you and what you taught me and what you continue to teach me. Thanks Rich!!

  2. Thanks right back at you, Allison. I'm glad you seem to realize why I'm writing this and know that it certainly isn't to offend anyone.

    I welcome comments and opinions from everyone, whether they agree or not, and I'm glad to have your input. :)